DAN KIBLER COLUMN: In pursuit of the elusive green thumb

I am never going to be mistaken for someone who was born with a green thumb. Two left thumbs, maybe, but my ability to grow things over the first 65 years of my existence has been limited to the green stuff growing in old cups I forgot to bring up out of the basement while putting line on fishing reels or piddling with box calls to make them sound more like a turkey.

Dan Kibler

But at least, after all these years, I’m giving it the old college try, 46 years after I left Athens, Georgia, diploma in hand, headed to a newspaper job in North Carolina.

Why the delay? I didn’t have much success with a one-time effort in the backyard of our first house. It was too much like work, but of course, that had something to do with me biting off more than I could chew. My first garden was way too big.

At our second house, which we moved into in 1990, my wife and I decided that we would love some backyard shade, so we had the builder leave more than a dozen trees, one of which is an elm that has a trunk a good 40 inches in diameter.

Needless to say, we got our shade, in spades. But having a backyard that was 10 degrees cooler than the front yard during the summer isn’t conducive to enough sunlight getting through for a garden. At least I didn’t have much grass to worry about mowing.

A handful of years ago, however, several of the trees started to concern us, so we had two walnuts, a cedar and two gums cut down, plus the largest branch of a third walnut — I was really tired of it dropping its fruit on the hood of my car, leaving marks.

Suddenly, I had a backyard that got lots of sunlight. Ah, “What about a garden?” I asked my wife. After her cackling laughter died down, she figured even I might be able to grow something that she could eat.

So last year, I cleared a 12×60 section, surrounded it with rabbit fencing, and started hoe-ing the sucker up. I built one raised bed out of 2x10s I had left over from some project. I made use of some big flowerpots — I mean, big flowerpots — for potatoes and questioned what my darling might like planted besides spuds. We settled on carrots for the raised bed and green beans and butter beans for the rest of the garden. I saved one bucket for a tomato plant.

Okay, so it wasn’t a resounding success. The carrots quit growing when they got to about the size of my thumbs. The tomato plant, well, it didn’t make it. Ditto the butter beans. But the green beans, well, we ate on them for about two months. Success.

Over the winter, my wife suggested that I give up on carrots and tomatoes. In the raised bed, she wanted zucchinis. Forget the butter beans. She really wanted enough green beans to can them in mason jars and spread them around the kids’ families.

So, I bought a used Mantis tiller at one of Kyle Swicegood’s online auctions, got it into running shape and tilled the entire garden, leaving it, in my opinion, just beautiful. I got online and read everything I could find about growing green beans — Kentucky wonder pole beans, in this case.

My son, who was sending off soil tests from a corn patch in his back 40 and for our dove field, scooped up some dirt from my garden and sent it off for testing. It came back great. Limited fertilizing necessary.

Did my wife appreciate those efforts? Well, last week, she handed me the phone one night with instructions to pick the brain of her cousin, Everette, who plants a legendary garden every spring in his home in Troy, Virginia, just down I-64 from Charlottesville. Everette walked me through everything that I needed to know that I hadn’t found on the internet.

This past weekend, I added some potting soil and compost to the dirt, and about half the garden was filled with poles – pieces of bamboo arranged in teepee fashion for the climbing beans — and seeds were buried. The other stakes, with a latticework of jute string — Everette’s suggestion, should be in place by the end of this week, along with those seeds.

And the potatoes have already broken through and are sprouting nicely.

I took a good, long look at my hands this morning, searching for signs of a green thumb. Instead, all I saw were cuts and skinned places some of the cuts scabbed over, plus plenty of skin missing from the tips of a number of fingers.

I guess success comes at a price. Now, if I can just find success.

Dan Kibler has covered the outdoors since 1985 as outdoors editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and later as managing editor of Carolina Sportsman until his retirement in 2021.